Watering down workforce diversity

By Claire Fox | 11 April 2017
  • Claire Fox

The LGA recently launched a report, An Inclusive Service: The 21st Century Fire and Rescue Service. While the aim of workforce diversity seems laudable, the report’s inclusive rhetoric hides an underlying critique of the present staff, accompanied by the sinister demand that they change, or else. 

The report is right to encourage a wider catchment of job applicants ‘to get the best people for the job’. It’s argued that the public still has outdated perceptions of the service and doesn’t understand the range of activities the job involves, potentially putting off new recruits. These days, a new ‘holistic approach’ towards community safety means that modern firefighters are as likely to give you a lecture on fall prevention or the risks of alcohol misuse as save you from an inferno. So seeking ‘a workforce with a diversity of experience and perspective’ seems fair enough. But I become queasy when the report emphasises ‘seizing the opportunity to change the demographics of the workforce’. The LGA is embracing some of the worst aspects of today’s identity politics orthodoxy. 

I have no argument with Cllr Jeremy Hilton, chair of the LGA’s Fire Services Management Committee, when he says that the twenty-first century firefighter should be seen as just as likely to be a woman as a man, free of racial and identity stereotypes. Currently, the service is 95% white men. But I’m less convinced that modern fire and rescue services ‘need to reflect the people and communities they serve’. Why exactly? Apparently to ‘understand and respond to the different needs of the people they protect and come into contact with’. To assume there are different fire and rescue needs for people dependent on their ethnicity, gender or sexual preference is not only essentialising, it divisively insults those on the frontline today. Do those asked to rescue a young Asian boy from drowning, or a woman caught in a burning house, serve less effectively by not being Asian or women? 

The report argues that ‘innovative approaches to recruitment can only achieve so much’ and so shifts its focus to a full-scale culture war against those who are already firefighters. We are told there is a need to ‘change the culture of the service… the dynamics of an institution historically dominated by white males’. The report quotes Dany Cotton, London Fire Commissioner and chair of women in the fire service, remembering her first day as a London firefighter in 1988, when the officer in charge told her that he didn’t agree with women being in the fire service and three men on the watch requested a transfer ‘because they didn’t want to work with a woman’. But worryingly, rather than a strategy to counter such attitudes, the report recommends rolling-out ‘unconscious bias’ training across the service.

The idea of unconscious bias is fashionable in diversity circles. But what is it? The report’s definitions are slippery, subjective and more like pseudo-scientific quackery than a reliable guide for workforce development. We’re told that ‘according to a group of psychologists working in America, the human brain is designed to make quick decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences without us even being consciously aware that it is doing so’. Blaming socialisation, upbringing, culture, friends and the media, allegedly we have ‘a preference for our own ‘kind’. This disturbingly lumps people’s sexual or racial characteristics together as ‘our own kind’ – as if all LGBT people or white men are a collection of homogenous blobs whose brains show favoritism to their mirror image. 

More frighteningly, instead of straightforwardly challenging bigotry when it happens, it assumes firefighters are unthinkingly prejudiced and need help to recognise and address their deep-rooted biases. Cue an army of special diversity trainers given a green light to read and police people’s minds, to monitor and interpret staff’s behavior. This means employees can be indicted not for what they’ve actually done or said, or even for what they consciously think, but for their unwitting prejudices as defined by some diversity checklist. Anyone claiming they do not hold such biases can be denounced for being in denial and sent on yet another training course. 

In the report, LGBT campaign Stonewall explains that creating an inclusive, operationally effective culture means valuing individuals for their abilities, where team members are ‘able to be their authentic selves at work,’ stressing that ‘people perform better when… everyone is accepted without exception’. Yet the present workforce is not accepted or valued. The LGA declares: ‘There is no room for maintaining the status quo.’ Firefighters’ informal ‘watch culture’ and banter (otherwise known as the camaraderie and gallows humour associated with professions that face danger) are branded as bullying that needs to be stamped out. But how can you be yourself or create real workplace solidarity and equality that transcends identity, if interpersonal relations are constantly under scrutiny and vilified?  

Chillingly, the report concludes with a threat: ‘Notwithstanding the need for personal freedom, everyone needs to know that regardless of their position, capability or popularity that they will be excluded if they demonstrate words or actions that do not conform to the desired culture of the future.’ This will not lead to a diverse workplace but a cowed, conformist one. An Orwellian fire and rescue service is unlikely to appeal to any new recruits, regardless of their identities. 

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

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